The frustration of an underperforming member of the team makes work life difficult and resolving things can challenge even more experienced business leaders. Here are some practical tips from the front line.
Nobody really wants their gravestone to read: “I worked for fifty years, achieved nothing and got away with it.” Most people come to work wanting to perform well, and as leaders we should try to make that as easy as possible.
Underperformance at work can arise for many reasons. For example:
- Misunderstanding about expectations of the role and its contribution to the firm
- Not understanding team priorities and goals
- Not being clear about required behaviour
- Lack of awareness of their poor performance or behaviour (with no objective feedback)
- Inadequate skills or knowledge
- Insufficient confidence about applying good skills in the work place.
I often see workers with the necessary skills and knowledge perform below their capability – because they can’t apply their skills. Such lack of confidence can be debilitating to the individual and the performance of the team and business.
One sure way to undermine a worker’s confidence is to directly criticise their performance in personal terms, in front of others, and with a tone or body language that is annoyed or threatening. Lifting productivity and performance is as much about confidence as skills. Feedback to underperforming workers is still important, so that they can improve performance by understanding expectations, but how this is delivered is critical.
- Use a rule called ‘two to twenty four’. Provide feedback not earlier than two hours after an incident,
and no longer than twenty four hours. Feedback is then recent and relevant. Allowing two hours after seeing poor performance makes it less likely you will exhibit unhelpful body language or a negative tone.
- After talking, a worker ideally owns the solution rather than feeling responsible for the problem. ‘People taking responsibility for their own actions’ may be a useful life philosophy, but it can prove costly in the workplace.
- Use de-personalised language. Try to talk about the event or work, rather than using the word ‘you’ and don’t get caught in the blame game. Blame and guilt can corrupt team culture like a bushfire in a drought.
- Ask questions rather than statements when providing feedback. This enables people to own the solution and to feel they have been a successful contributor by resolving a problem which they were a part of.
- Be clear about what steps can be taken to improve the performance. This can be very simple (from them being aware of behaviour of an improvement required, through to training or on the job support).
- Ensure there is a time planned for follow up so that the support and follow-through is given.
There is no need to wait until underperformance is serious to provide this feedback. The more frequently feedback about underperformance is provided, and the less serious the issue, the lower the risk that serious poor performance will occur.